KANDAL PROVINCE, Cambodia — Petite, soft-spoken and innocent Kai Sochoeun dreamed of a better life, away from the poverty she was born into in rural Cambodia.
She passed her days fetching water from a pond and tending to chickens that roamed near her wooden stilt home. She watched the men in her village skeptically. If they only cared about card games and alcohol, how could marriage improve her life?
“I wasn't interested in a husband,” she said.
That changed when an acquaintance of her uncle approached her with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The woman could arrange for Kai to travel to China, where there’s an abundance of well-paying factory jobs and, if she was interested, sophisticated, affluent men awaited.
After she agreed to go to China — a place she only knew from TV dramas — things moved quickly. Within a week, the human traffickers had forged all the necessary documents and brought her to the airport.
In hindsight, Kai realized that it was too good to be true.
Soon, she had been sold to a Chinese man who physically abused and raped her. She had never met him before, she didn't speak his language, and she had no clue where she was — other than that it was somewhere in China.
“[W]hen I didn’t want to sleep with him, when I tried to resist, he grabbed me. He got angry and pushed me on the bed and had sex with me. ... He was very aggressive. He was the first man I slept with, I didn’t have any experience, but I knew that this was not right. It was terrible,” she said.
Besides the daily rapes, the man’s family treated her like a servant and she was held in solitary confinement.
She wasn't the only one who was trafficked to southern China that day.
“There were two other girls, younger than me, who were also at the airport. They cried when they said goodbye to their families. We were all a little bit scared,” Kai remembers.
“I had heard of such stories, where women were trafficked, where they were tricked and then sold. But I thought it wouldn't happen to me,” Kai said.
For years, local media in Laos and Myanmar, both neighboring China, have reported cases of women who were trafficked to China — often under the influence of drugs.
China's one-child policy, introduced in 1979 to address rapid population growth, has produced a gender imbalance. Male heirs are favored in Chinese culture, and there have been reports of parents aborting female fetuses or even killing baby girls. The British Medical Journal estimated in 2005 that China had produced a surplus of 32 million young men — about four times the population of New York City.
For many of these men, looking across China's borders has become the only option to find a wife.
Quest for a better life
Kai and the two women she had traveled with were led to believe that they would find work in China, and possibly marry a suitable Chinese man.
At the airport, they were picked up by a Cambodian woman and four Chinese who took them to a town that Kai remembers by the name “Fuja.”
They were told to doll themselves up so they'd look pretty for the men who were about to visit the house to pick one of them as a bride. It was then that Kai finally realized that she was being trafficked. There was no lucrative $500-a-month job waiting for her, and it was not up to her to decide who she'd marry.
One by one, impoverished-looking Chinese men came in to shop for an obedient, Southeast Asian wife who would give them an heir.
“When I was sitting there so the Chinese men could look at me, I knew that I had been trafficked. They chose us, and I felt like a prostitute,” she said.
As soon as she arrived at her new husband's house, the abuse began.
“[W]hen I didn’t want to sleep with him, when I tried to resist, he grabbed me. He got angry and pushed me on the bed and had sex with me,” Kai said, adding that the same ordeal would take place up to four times a day.
The United Nations reports that millions of people worldwide are victims of trafficking. This may be a conservative estimate, as most cases are thought never to be reported. The picture of shackled slaves inspected at auctions has changed into a secretive and much more nuanced underground trade worth billions.
“Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia, remains one of the key areas of origin and destination of trafficking in persons,” said Annette Lyth, the UN's Inter-Agency Program on Human Trafficking's regional program coordinator.
Overall, about 80 percent of victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced to work in brothels or, like in the case of Kai, sold as brides against their will.
After two months, Kai finally managed to get ahold of a phone and called a Cambodian radio station whose phone number she remembered, begging for help.
Within several days, she was repatriated.
Others, Cambodian authorities say, are not as lucky. The first cases of trafficking Cambodian brides to China were recorded about two years ago, when families informed human rights organizations that they were looking for their daughters, who had disappeared in China.
Every month, said Choun Bun Eng, chairwoman of the Cambodian government's committee to fight human trafficking, police arrest traffickers just before they send women off to China. But the majority slip through.
“We don't know why this has risen so much, but we take it seriously,” Choun said.
Kai's traffickers have disappeared and will most likely never be arrested. Of the two women who boarded the plane with her, one has been repatriated, and the second remains missing. Nobody, not even her family, knows what happened to her.
Back at her home in Cambodia, Kai said that tending after her small plot of land and the handful of chickens now makes her feel content.
“In a way, I was lucky,” she said.
(Kuch Naren contributed reporting.)